Only a week after New York City planner Amanda Burden spoke at NasherSalon — extolling the kind of zoning regulations and dense urban developments synched to public mass transit that, you know, Dallas does so well — William Doig in Salon concludes what any half-awake person has noticed about downtown Dallas’ Victory Park, our very own ‘urban lifestyle destination’:
A pre-planned billion-dollar collection of imposing hyper-modern monumental structures, high-end chain stores, enormous video screens, expensive restaurants, a sports arena and tons of parking, completely isolated from the rest of the city by a pair of freeways, Victory Park is like the schizophrenic dream of some power-hungry capitalist technocrat.
Needless to say, the last thing it is is ‘entertaining.’ (‘Who wants to hang out at the mall?’) I should add that some of this wasn’t news even before VP was built: The late architecture critic David Dillon said — before a spade of ground was turned for the development — that it was in the wrong place and he wasn’t exactly enamored of the design, either.
Doig then goes on to blast the Arts District as well, quoting the Chicago Tribune on how we’ve built ‘the most boring arts district money can buy.’ It’s just a lifeless museum exhibition of designer-class architecture.
Doig gets some major things right about pre-planned ‘entertainment districts’ like Victory Park , the ones cities and developers try to manufacture out of whole cloth:
It’s not just that the developers are boring people — the economics of single-owner districts incentivize blandness. Chain stores and restaurants can afford to pay higher rent, so they get first dibs. To boost rents even higher, tenants are sometimes promised that no competition will be allowed nearby.
In this context, it’s worth noting that VP — currently owned by a German investment fund — announced last week that it’s going to undergo a retail re-do (pay wall), courtesy of Fort Worth’s Trademark Property. They’re going to try to get away from the more high-end outfits that filled the place originally and soon died:
While the offices, apartments and hotel rooms at Victory Park have done well, the retail portion of the project on the northwest edge of downtown faltered during the recession. Sections of the ground floor shopping and restaurant space at Victory Park have been empty for more than two years. …
The developer also will be looking at how to use undeveloped land in the project for additional retail…
Preliminary plans call for a total redesign of the streetscape throughout the project.
Well, that should certainly solve all its horrible isolation/location problems.
But what Doig certainly gets wrong — at least as it relates to the Arts District — is his conclusion: “But mainly, it shows that these districts work better without all the bureaucratic attachment parenting.” True, in the sense that any monolithic planning-and-design authority tends to dampen the funky, exciting, make-do nature of the arts and of urban nightlife in general. But a chief weakness of the Arts District from the start was our city’s traditional laissez-faire abnegation of any influence on the free market . The arts groups and, of course, the developers soon realized it was ‘every man for himself.’ Recall my opening sarcasm, above, about Amanda Burden and our city’s great successes in encouraging and directing viable urban density.
The fact is — as much as people like Patrick Kennedy of Walkable DFW (and me) may denounce the Arts District with all good reason — features like affordable housing and pedestrian access were actually part of the original plan. Once upon a time, Dallasites weren’t stupid. They knew that fancy buildings alone would not do the trick. Read, for instance, theater consultant Richard Pilbrow’s account of the development of the Arts District in his new memoir, A Theatre Project. What happened to scuttle all that early idealism/sensible urban thinking? The ’80s recession.
And the originating purpose of this public-private venture did its part as well. The idea was to re-invigorate a dead portion of downtown. That pretty much meant that after the city’s investment, nearby landowners would profit by doing whatever they could to get the highest return. Hence, the near-total lack of coordination amongst the arts groups and developers, the lack of any retail, until after the AT&T PAC started to go up. That’s when people began to realize, this thing ain’t gonna work. We need, uh, trees. And people, yeah, that’s right, people. And maybe some food trucks.
What Doig and Kennedy (and often me, too) generally relegate to a non-mention is one of the Arts District’s smartest things and signs of life, one of those idealistic inclusions that didn’t die off through the ’80s because, frankly, it was already there: Booker T. Washington Arts Magnet High School.
Image from HighRises.com